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March 11, 2009 | 26 Comments

A new movie rating scheme

Most newspapers rate movies on the star system. Four to five stars are printed, and from none to all of them are colored in. Supposedly, the more stars colored, the better the movie.

The star ratings are usually accompanied by deeply informative words like “Tour de force”, “Non-stop thrill ride”, “Laugh-out-loud funny!”, “Oscar worthy”, “Deeply moving”, and so forth.

These ratings have some value to us civilians, but because of their predictable nature, they are not that useful to movie studios.

What we would like is a rating system created by us civilians that studio executives could use to predict how much money a movie will make, and will let them make better guesses of when to pull a stinker off the shelf, or to let a surprise gem flourish longer.

Here is that system.

To the nearest dollar, we announce how much we would pay to see a movie.

Positive numbers mean we open our wallets, negative numbers mean we have to be paid.

For example, for me anything that stars the egomaniac midget Scientologist Tom Cruise or “Laugh-out-loud funny!” Adam Sandler starts at $0, and usually goes down from there.

I haven’t seen Valkyrie, the Tom Cruise as-a-good-little-Nazi drama. But I estimate it would cost somebody $15 for me to watch it. Thus, my rating is -15.

To be clear: a movie studio would have to pay me to sit through two hours of the preening Cruise, so I could try and guess how high his lifts are. Now I think of it, make my rating -25.

Star Trek is rebooting. I’ve seen the trailers and fan sites, and admit my geekhood. My rating is 12. I would not pay more than 12 bucks to go and see.

They’ve remade The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and from the posters alone, I rate this as 0. That is, if it was free, I’d probably sit through it.

Mutant Chronicles pulls me in both directions:

In the year 2707, war rages between earth’s four giant corporations as they battle over the planet’s dwindling resources. In an era marked by warfare and social regression, the earth is on the verge of ruin, destruction is everywhere; battles explode on every ravaged continent. Amidst heavy combat, an errant shell shatters an ancient buried seal releasing a horrific mutant army from its eternal prison deep within the earth.

Oh my. Evil corporations. Social regression. Hollywood never explored those angles before. On the other hand, a “horrific mutant army“! You just cannot go wrong with a mutant army of any kind, especially a horrific one. So my rating is 5.

Cheery Blossoms, “The story of Trudi and Rudi, a long-married couple who travel to the German countryside to visit their children only to realize that they’re emotionally distant and unavailable.” gets a solid -50. Yes, even lower than Tom Cruise (at least some Nazis get Schwarzeneggered in that movie).

I was all set to give Inglorious Bastards, directed by Quentin Tarantino, a good 8, just for the name. But then I saw, “Starring Brad Pitt.” Back to 0. Too damn many pretty boy male actors these days.

Fanboys about a “group of young, passionate STAR WARS fans on a cross-country quest to break into George Lucas Skywalker Ranch and watch STAR WARS: EPISODE 1- THE PHANTOM MENACE, before its released” wins the 8.

Anything involving crazed, emotionally stricken ex-soldiers starts at -100 and goes down fast. If it stars the smug George Clooney or the traitorous Jane Fonda, I add an extra -400.

Naturally, these ratings can be indexed to inflation so they can be compared year to year.

Just one rating is not much help to a studio, but many would be. Executives could take the distribution of those ratings and easily use them in deciding how many theaters to show the movie in, or how much more or less advertising dollars to spend, and so on.

It takes a little practice to get good at making these ratings. You have to really picture yourself going to the theater, sitting in a darkened room and watching, for the full two point five hours, Everlasting Moments, which is “[b]ased on a true story [and] follows the story of Maria (Maria Heiskanen), who is married to an alcoholic and womanizing dockworker (Mikael Persbrandt). Her husband leaves the worries of family responsibilities entirely to Maria.”

Once the full horror of the experience impresses itself on your mind, you can easily see that the rating would be -60.

Same thing for X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I can easily see myself jumping up and down on the chair as Wolverine slices off body parts of the bad guy. A solid 10.

The new ratings can also be used to price DVDs. My top rating is 15, because I wouldn’t spend more than 15 bucks to see any movie. For me, DVDs should begin around that mark. Again, the distribution of ratings would be used to set the price.

The negative aspect does what the star system could never do, because all movies that got 0 stars appeared to be the same, which they clearly are not. Same for those that got all four or five stars: there are still differences in these movies. The dollar rating systems neatly captures these.

While you are pondering these magnificent benefits, I’ll be deciding a price for Public Enemies, where the “Feds try to take down notorious American gangsters John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd during a booming crime wave in the 1930s.”

March 10, 2009 | 16 Comments

CBC’s How to Think Aboot Science series

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has a great web site with a series (so far on-going) How to Think Aboot Science.

I recommend the site as a great resource for interviews with the players in many different areas of the philosophy of science, on the sociology of science, and on what is happening at the far fringes and beyond.

While I encourage a visit to the site, I can hardly recommend some of the ideas presented there. A few of them are downright screwy.

For example, James Lovelock rolls out his tired Gaia hypothesis for the n-teenth time. This belief states, more or less, that the Earth is alive and in just the right condition—lest we continue being naughty and upset the balance—for human life. Also the life of viruses, infectious bacteria, rats and other vermin.

Actually, whenever Gaia supporters mention non-human lifeforms, it’s always the fuzzy or feathered kind. They always forget the nasty stuff. Anyway, the Gaia hypothesis is sort of the Strong Anthropic Principle applied to just the planet, and just the way the planet is now (forgeting orbital variations, for example).

Rupert Sheldrake talks about having psychic connections with plants—no, not really. But what he’s advocating is not too different. Sheldrake is a big ESP buff. He has the idea that, roughly, plants have mysterious aura-like fields that are necessary for their growth. Nobody else has been able to find them yet, but Sheldrake can.

Steven Shapin presents the standard relativist view (that we refuted yesterday) that “science is social all the way down, and that this in no way undermines its truth claims, truth also being, by nature, social.” Hey, Shapin, is that statement true? If so…well, you get the idea.

There are many nods to our modern sensitivities, as will be obvious from a cursory inspection of the speakers and topics.

Then again, there are some intriguing, even daring, ideas. Margaret Lock, who has studied menopause in North American and Japanese women “makes a surprising suggestion. She proposes that there are biological differences between [these] women.” Not just cultural, but physiological differences. Not superficial ones, either, like outward appearances, but something more fundamental. This is a politically dangerous area, as, say, Charles Murray would tell you.

Lee Smolin takes string theory to task, as he does in his readable and important The Trouble with Physics. Smolin claims that string theory is beautiful—and exceedingly complex—mathematics, but it doesn’t seem to be physics.

Allan Young talks about how post-traumatic stress syndrome was invented, created out of whole cloth, that is.

Christopher Norris and noted philosopher Mary Midgley try to bring realism back to the Western world (I would say it was always there, but ignored or denied). It was Midgley, incidentally, that gave the most scathing and damning attack on Richard Dawkins memes and self genes theories.

Maybe we should have audio interviews here with some of our—it has to be said—highly intelligent readers.

March 9, 2009 | 15 Comments

Relativism: an idea that failed before it started

The Books of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defence of Universals
William D. Gairdner
McGill-Queen’s University Press
Recommendation: Read

Let’s play spot the flaw. In 1994, professor Mark Glazer said, “Cultural relativism in anthropology is a key methodological concept which is universally accepted within the discipline.” (It’s the very first sentence after the link.)

Don’t have it yet? Then let’s remind ourselves of what cultural relativism means: “Cultural relativism is the view that all beliefs are equally valid and that truth itself is relative, depending on the situation, environment, and individual.”

You surely have it by now, so let’s move on to the twelve objections to relativism as outlined by Gairdner in his Book of Absolutes.

Wait…what? You don’t see the flaw? Ah, I guess it’s hard to spot contradictions like this when we’re exposed to them so often that they seem natural.

If it is true that “Cultural relativism is the view that all beliefs are equally valid” etc., and that that proposition is “universally accepted”, then we are confronted with something that is true wherever you are. If “relativism” is true, then it is false because anthropologists everywhere believe it, and if they everywhere believe it, it is a universal truth, something that is true without regard to culture.

It gets even more asinine. If “Cultural relativism is the view that all beliefs are equally valid” etc., then how valid is the view that “Cultural relativism is false”? I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks.

Cultural relativism is an idea that is immediately seen as not just false but incredibly stupid, so you have to wonder how it originated and why it took such a tight hold on Western academia.

Gairdner relates the history and puts a lot of the blame on German export Franz Boas, an anthropologist who was horrified by World War I, eugenics, and other popular pastimes at the turn of the last century. Boas feared absolutes, such as those preached by the rising Socialist (National) party in Germany, because he felt that they could be used to justify any atrocity. Example: If it is true that Xs are inferior, then it is okay to exterminate them, where X is any group that is on the outs.

Boas was immensely influential, and if the story is right, transformed all of anthropology so that absolutes were seen as verboten. One of his students was Margret Mead, and we know where that story ended.

After going through the book, a good argument can be made for restricting all intellectual output of Germany, re: the romanticism of Nietzsche, its practical implementation under the uber-Nazi Heidegger—and then there’s the deconstructing, post-modernist pair of Foucault and Derrida, who were both French, but who lived so close to the German border that they soaked up too much of what was seeping out. The story of how these men captured the minds of academics is particularly interesting. It has been told before, but Gairdner was an inside witness and his anecdotes are interesting, especially the story of modern Saussarian linguistics and its eventual corruption by the cult of relativism.

There are separate discussions of human biology, language, law, and customs, which all have lists of universals of the constant, conditional and statistical kind. Constant means the trait, such as the taboo against murder, is shared by every culture. Conditional means that if trait A is present then B always is, but that trait A might not be constant. Statistical traits are found in most but not necessarily all cultures (and are thus not universal, but intriguing anyway).

Gairdner attempts a list of physical constants, which is a good enough idea, but times are changing in physics and the “constants” once held dear have become malleable. But never mind. His central idea is still right: there are truths that exist independent of human minds or thought. He also has a go at the stronger Anthropic Principle, but is not convincing. However, I’ve yet to meet with an argument for that Principle that is.

The amazing thing is that universals, or even the possibility of them, were so thoroughly rejected by highly paid, tenure-wielding, peer-reviewed professors. That is, during the twentieth century the intelligentsia gathered as one and said, “There are no universals, there is nothing that is true.”

Now that is a shocking statement. But it came from a consensus of professors, and who are we mere mortals to question a consensus? So it was believed, and from it came things like judicial activism, multiculturalism etc., etc. If there is nothing universally true, academics swooned, then think of the possibilities!

Of course, the flaw in that statement was always obvious, plain, and damning. For we can ask, “Is it true that there is nothing that is universally true?” The post-modernist professor must say yes, but as he does, he makes himself a fool, albeit one with a comfortable “research” budget.

Anyway, here are a few representative examples of relativism culled from Gairdner’s book, all of which share the same self-contradictory logical flaw. You will need some familiarity with the subjects to understand some of the statements (background for each is given in the book). That these blatant flaws were overlooked—usually in the name of “good intentions”—says quite a bit about how the desire for power can so easily blind.

* Dawkins, in his Selfish Genes, says our brains have grown so large that we can rebel “against our own natures.” “We along on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

* Yet another German, influential legal scholar Hans Kelsen, “rejected and derided outright the claims of ‘philosophical absolutism’, which insist there is a foundational reality that exists independent of human knowledge.”

* The post-modern interpretation of literature: “All texts, and the world itself, are nothing more than ‘a galaxy of signifiers.'”

* Nietzsche “protested that all religions and philosophies are but thinly veiled attempts by their to control others by persuading them of the ‘facts’ produced only by the logic of their pet theories.”

* Derrida: “no discourse has the objective capacity to analyze another discourse.”

* Foucault: “interpretation can never be brought to an end…because there is nothing to interpret.”

* Said’s and others’ anti-foundationalism: which argues there can be no foundation in philosophy.

March 7, 2009 | 12 Comments

A subtle difference

These plaques were placed outside the doors of a toilet in a train station on the outskirts of Taipei.

Boy toilet entrance Girl toilet entrance

Even with my lack of Chinese, I managed to go to the right place.